News & Current Affairs

By Satomi Hamon


ABORIGINAL LIVES MATTER: Black deaths in custody happening in our own backyard

There has recently been an outpouring of support in the Australian media for the American Black Lives Matter movement. This is in response to the horrific death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee to his neck for in excess of 8 minutes during an arrest on 25 May 2020.

While Australians should be outraged by George Floyd’s death, they should not be complacent about similar deaths in custody that occur in Australia on a far too regular basis.  It would be refreshing if a comparative level of outrage was directed towards the unacceptably high rates of Aboriginal incarceration in Australia and sufficient action was taken to address the problem. Sadly, the deaths of Indigenous people in similar circumstances to George Floyd have never earned the same media attention nor incited the same level of public outrage and demonstration within Australia.

George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe” echoed those of 26-year-old Aboriginal man David Dungay, who said the words 12 times before he died in 2015 while being restrained by five prison guards at Long Bay gaol in NSW. Yet many Australians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, refuse to confront their nations own shameful record in its treatment of Indigenous people in custody.

On Monday, Scott Morrison made the following comment to 2GB:

And so as upsetting and terrible is the murder that took place, and it is shocking … I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia.

Supporting the American Black Lives Matter movement is important, but Australia also needs to address its own racism. The deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians are not hidden. Australians just choose to turn a blind eye, and by expressing such outrage in response to an African American death in custody we have legitimised the violence and oppression long suffered by Indigenous Australians.

28% of the Australian prison population are Indigenous, despite comprising only 2% of the general adult population.  An analysis of data in 2019 found that Indigenous Australians are now more likely to be gaoled than African Americans. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, 432 Indigenous Australians have died in custody. No police officers have been convicted over these deaths. 

As recently as Tuesday, amidst the Black Lives Matter coverage, a NSW police officer was put on restricted duties after a video emerged of him arresting an Indigenous teenager by sweeping his legs out from under him and slamming him face first onto the ground. In addressing this incident, the NSW Police Commissioner Michael Fuller defended the officer, saying he “had a bad day”. The NSW Police Minister David Elliott also defended the officer, saying he was “horrified” by the language used by the Indigenous teenager before the arrest. Mr Elliott said it was an “unfortunate situation” but said he was “horrified” by the language used by the boy. “I don’t want to see any young person physically apprehended for doing anything and I certainly don’t want to see any police officer physically threatened with violence,” Mr Elliott said. “I was just as disturbed about the threat from a young person to physically assault a police officer as I was with the response from the police officer.”

This incident and the response from NSW Police is demonstrative of the systemic racism and police brutality that remains prevalent in Australia.

While Australians should show their solidarity with African Americans, we should be focussing on actively supporting the Aboriginal Lives Matter movement and denouncing the Indigenous deaths in custody, police brutality and racism occurring in our own country.

Look at this Google Doc to learn of ways you can contribute to the Aboriginal Lives Matter movement.